Government shutdown ‘incredibly disruptive,’ Vilsack warns: At a White House news conference, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said food aid to new mothers, loans to farmers and public access to national forests could be casualties in a shutdown by Marc Heller (E&E News PM Sept. 25, 2023)
E&E NEWS PM | Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack turned up pressure on Congress on Monday to avert a partial government shutdown, predicting impacts on food aid, access to public lands, and the federal loans that support homeownership and farm operations.
“It’s incredibly disruptive,” Vilsack said at a White House news conference, adding that as many as 50,000 workers at the Department of Agriculture could be furloughed, hurting USDA operations in “every county in the country.”
Vilsack, who oversaw the USDA during a 2013 shutdown over similar budget-related conflicts in Congress, was the featured speaker at the daily White House news briefing, driving home the Biden administration’s message that far-right House Republicans are pursuing extreme policies to bring the government to its knees.
A shutdown would have “real consequences to real people in a real way,” Vilsack said, including possibly slowing passage of the five-year farm bill that authorizes programs across the USDA and leaving the department less able to help lawmakers obtain information they need to craft the bill.
The 2018 farm bill expires Sept. 30, although lawmakers have said the new version could wait until December with minimal negative effect.
House Republicans see the issue differently, saying the budget impasse is an opportunity to rein in what they consider runaway federal spending and a demand from constituents for leaner government programs, as well as a chance to exert influence on other issues such as aid to Ukraine.
Some USDA operations would carry on, Vilsack said, including meat and poultry inspections and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program. But benefits through the Women, Infants and Children food assistance program could stop within days, or perhaps weeks in states with enough extra money on hand, he said. The program covers around half the babies born in the U.S., he said.
Farmers who’ve applied for USDA marketing loans ahead of the fall harvest could see those applications halted as Farm Service Agency offices close, Vilsack said. Direct USDA loans for homebuyers in rural areas might not go through, he said, potentially squelching purchase deals.
“It creates a tremendous amount of stress,” Vilsack said.
The looming shutdown comes as House Republicans seek still-deeper reductions in agriculture spending than what the GOP-led Appropriations Committee approved several months ago. A manager’s amendment filed on the bill being considered this week would cut most agriculture programs by an additional 14.15 percent, or $1.2 billion, with the exception of the nutrition programs.
MESSAGE NUMBER TWO:
To: Federal Forest Resource Coalition( FFRC)Board & Policy Committee(Includes Associated California Loggers)
Fr: Bill Imbergamo, Executive Director
Re: Shutdown Guidance
I’ve learned that USDA leadership has provided guidance to the Forest Service on how to proceed in the likely event of a shutdown at the end of this week. I expect this written guidance to be transmitted today – it’s not clear what it will say exactly, but it appears that the Administration may opt to allow existing contracts to continue operating, similar to how things were handled in 2018. If memory serves, the situation then allowed existing timber sales to continue, but purchasers were not allowed to open new units and no new sales were offered.
There are also apparently internal discussions about how much of the Forest Service can continue to operate in the absence of a FY 2024 spending bill, using supplemental funding provided through the Infrastructure Act and the Inflation Reduction Act. Considering how much of that funding can be used for timber operations, there is a plausible case that this shutdown should have minimal impact on the Forest Service. I still believe the Administration will look for ways to make the shutdown as painful and disruptive as possible.
MESSAGE NUMBER THREE:
To: FFRC Board & Policy Committee
Fr: Bill Imbergamo, Executive Director
Re: Shutdown Update (Thursday edition)
Unfortunately, shortly after I sent yesterday’s note, I received a communication indicating that the Administration was directing the Forest Service to prepare for a “harder” shutdown, assuming there is no resolution to the political impasse on Capitol Hill in the next 48 hours. (FWIW, there is no indication of a path forward at this time). Also unfortunately, I was out of cell range most of the day yesterday and was unable to communicate this to you.
I have asked senior Forest Service leaders to share whatever information they can as soon as they can. It seems the political appointees have issued a fairly strict directive to the career staff to bar them from sharing guidance until the Administration says they can.
So, with those tea leaves, it seems unfortunately that we can expect the pending shutdown in 2023 will be as thorough and disruptive as the 2013 shutdown was. As you’ll recall, that year, the Obama Administration directed the immediate suspension of all timber contracts. The relatively brief shutdown was then trotted out as an excuse for poor performance and missed timber targets for the balance of FY 2013.
We’ve made clear to the Administration (and our allies on Capitol Hill) that shutdowns create unnecessary disruptions in the timber program and threaten to put loggers and millworkers out of their jobs. Unfortunately, as you folks must all realize by now, Congressional leaders seem much more concerned with political posturing than with governance.
I wish I had some other guidance to provide, and will share anything else I learn as fast as possible. In the meantime, all I can recommend is staying in close touch with your contracting officers.
ASSOCIATED CALIFORNIA LOGGERS ANALYSIS: We are watching to see if negotiations break down, if a shutdown actually occurs, and when and how such a shutdown will end. Our Resource Availability Fund consultants will be in touch with USFS contracting officers. An ACL delegation travelled to DC last March to lobby for beneficial elements of the “Forestry Title” of the 2023 Farm Bill to be enacted. We will push for the Farm Bill to be passed in 2023 and follow the bill into 2024 if negotiations drag on until then.